In 2018, Father Daniel Ruiz-Sierra blessed the ashes during an Ash Wednesday Mass at Holy Cross Church in Freeville. (File Photo Courier)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third installment in the Catholic Courier’s new feature film series Why Do Catholics…? which aims to answer questions about what Catholics do and believe.
Every year, Catholics around the world mark the start of Lent by receiving blessed ashes on their foreheads. The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a ritual that has stood the test of time and has its roots in ancient history, noted Deacon Jonathan Schott, associate director of campus ministry at St. John Fisher. College of Pittsford.
“It is a dark and pious act that Christians and Catholics have been doing for over 1,000 years,” Deacon Schott said.
The season of Lent was defined at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but the importance of ashes in church history dates back to pre-Christian times, he added.
“The church has used ashes for a long time, from the beginning, as a sort of outward sign of humility, penance, mortality,” Deacon Schott said. “In the Old Testament there are stories everywhere about the use of ashes.”
One such story is that of Daniel, who turned to God “in prayer and supplication, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Ashes also feature in the Old Testament books of Job and Jonah, noted Charles Hughes Huff, assistant professor of scripture at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford. In the Old Testament, ashes are a symbol of mourning, death and penance, said Hughes Huff.
“Along with penance, the most famous example is the Book of Jonah,” Hughes Huff said. “There is a bit of exaggeration in Jonas. When Jonah half-heartedly strives to tell the people of Nineveh, “Your sins will kill you,” they do public penance by laying sackcloth and ashes on everyone, including the animals.
In the book of Job, the main character spends time weeping atop a pile of ashes after his children have been killed and his livelihood taken from him. Hughes Huff noted that in the Old Testament ashes are connected with great loss, “especially calamity”.
“It’s not always something you would do if your father died at 94 and had a good life, but it’s more when the city is destroyed or when your job and your whole world is destroyed in a week,” he explained. “When your sin has resulted in calamity and loss, it results in Christian penance over sin, just a public declaration of penance over sin, and ultimately it is associated with Lent and this day of Ash Wednesday.”
Books written in the third and fourth centuries mention the sprinkling of ashes on people’s heads as a public sign of their repentance for sins, Hughes Huff said. It is unclear, however, exactly when the imposition of ashes was ritualized and designated for a specific day, he noted.
“Some are a bit hazy. … The earliest reference to the imposition of ashes that I know of in terms of liturgical practice in the church is in the Gregorian Sacramentary,” he said.
The Gregorian Sacramentary is a 10th-century manuscript that illustrates liturgical practices that likely took place centuries before the manuscript was created, said Hughes Huff, suggesting that the imposition of Lenten ashes began in the 900s or 800s. sacramental also refers to the dies cinerum — or Ash Day — is how Ash Wednesday is called in the Roman Missal used today, he added.
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday, which are created by burning palm trees blessed on Palm Sunday from the previous year, serve to remind worshipers of their mortality, sinfulness and need for repentance, Hughes Huff said.
“It’s a ritualized form of what’s in the Bible,” he says. “For a very symbolic rite of humility, mortality, suffering and penance for sin, it’s a little strange that this is the one that draws people in, but people connect with this,” said he declared. The rite is “universally embraced by a large segment of the Catholic world and the mainstream Protestant world. It’s one of the few things people do so they can go to mass in the morning and have a sign of faith on their forehead all day.